There's no denying that we here in Southern California are a little squirrely when it comes to sharing our favorite places. We want credit for knowing about these best-kept-secrets, but there's always the fear of Krispy Kreme-ization, that a once beloved neighborhood/regional gem will expand too fast and lose that special spark it once had. We'd better make our peace with it for Umami Burger, because with a "flagship" restaurant opening in megamall The Grove, and 35 more franchises set to open across the country thanks to a new partnership with SBE, the cat is officially out of the bag.
In a Kombu-Meal sized feature in the LA Times yesterday, Jessica Gelt profiles the special relationship between Umami's burger maestro Adam Fleischman and his big-time investment partner Sam Nazarian of the (in)famous SBE hospitality group. Since partnering up with Fleischman (SBE owns 50% of all future Umami ventures), Sam's been developing some big plans for the (at present) five-store burger chain, the first step of which will be the massive 175-seat, ecologically-friendly flagship location at The Grove.
Now, we love Umami Burger, and because of the success we wish on Adam Fleischman, we're not scared to share the secret with the out-of-towners that pack The Grove each afternoon with the hopes of catching a glimpse of AC Slater, or even with the out-of-towners that will apparently receive their very own Umami outposts in the not-too-distant future.
On the other hand, we haven't seen a place do business with SBE and come out on the other side exactly the way they went in (hi, Papaya King). Whether it's Gladstone's getting (as Emily so brilliantly called it) the Persian Bar Mitzvah treatment or the very fact that The Colony continues to exist in defiance of all natural law, when you dance with the devil, the devil don't change.
All of which might serve to explain why, for example, so much effort is going into the "green" selling points of this new restaurant in The Grove, which last time I checked was a gigantic monument to conspicuous, environmentally-unfriendly consumption. Does it really matter that Umami will have "Forest Stewardship Council-certified hardwood" in a mall with a 10-story parking garage that runs a freaking train through the main thoroughfare for people that are too lazy to walk from the Apple Store to Anthropologie? Trees, meet forest.
What we, and most people, liked about Umami from the beginning is that it was a creative burger that still didn't feel too pretentious. What SBE specializes in is making everything feel clubby and try-hard pretentious in that "dude, let's totally put a fog machine in the bathroom" kind of way. We're not saying this can't or won't work, but we're concerned for you, Umami Burger.
[Adam Fleischman pic via]